The name Daisy Bates hardly resonates today—few people outside Arkansas recognize it, much less know of her importance as a leader in the civil rights movement. Yet the actions of this singular woman precipitated a constitutional crisis and forced the president of the United States to send federal troops to an American city for the first time since the Civil War.
With a formal education that ended in eighth grade, Bates headed the Arkansas NAACP in a turbulent era, published a newspaper, wrote articles and an autobiography. The most significant of her achievements, however, was the desegregation of the all-white high school in Little Rock. Six years later, at the 1963 March on Washington, Bates addressed the crowd following Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Does anyone remember that?
Independent filmmaker Sharon La Cruise found out about Bates, and her interest was piqued. How, she wondered, did this feminist (a word coined years later by the women’s movement), a black woman who stubbornly refused to be cowed by either black men or white mobs, almost single-handedly orchestrate the notorious desegregation of Little Rock schools? It was an action that facilitated—just as white supremacists had feared—the integration of schools throughout the South.
La Cruise determined to investigate and publicize the story of Daisy Bates and restore the activist to her rightful place in history. It took her seven years to write, produce, and direct her documentary. She found people who knew Bates and spoke with them, and she pored through newspaper archives, microfiche, and personal letters in order to tell the story.
Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock premiered on PBS during Black History Month. It was subsequently screened in New York at the Athena Film Festival, an event that showcased movies about courageous women leaders, movies that were in many cases directed by women. Appropriately, PBS will continue to make Daisy Bates available for watching through March, which is Women’s History Month.
In 1956, two years after the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in public schools, Daisy Bates entered the office of the Little Rock school superintendent and demanded that he integrate the schools. When he refused, the NAACP sued the school board. In court, as Bates testified, the (white) prosecutor addressed her as “Daisy.” It was customary usage, because whites at the time didn’t concede any honorifics to blacks, not even the courtesy of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Bates confronted him, telling him that only her husband and friends had the right to use her given name. She insisted he call her “Mrs. Bates” or nothing at all. In that small way she asserted herself as a leader and demanded respect. Shortly thereafter the first rocks were pitched through her windows.
Bates spent the year going from door to door trying to recruit black students who would attempt to enter the all-white high school. The superintendent found ways to disqualify almost all of them, but 17 students survived the process. A year later, in 1957, nine of them, registered by the NAACP and coached by Bates at her house, walked to the doors of Central High, only to be confronted by hundreds of angry white supremacists and police armed with nightclubs and tear gas.
The governor, Orval Faubus, sent the Arkansas National Guard to “maintain peace” by preventing the black students from entering the school. The shocking images made headlines throughout the world. The impasse continued for weeks until President Eisenhower ordered the governor to recall the National Guard, leaving the nine students to face the mob by themselves.
Bates began to have doubts. She had promised the parents that their children would be safe. Having no children of her own, Bates devoted herself to her charges. The children finally entered the school only when the president ordered 10,000 federal troops to police the explosive situation. Of course, the ordeals of the Little Rock Nine, as they came to be called, had only begun. Inside the school, with no one to protect them, the children were subjected to taunts, spitting, and much worse. Outside, the Nine and their families, together with Bates, became primary targets of the hate crimes committed against the entire black community of Little Rock.
Bates gained celebrity (some said notoriety) and was asked to speak by organizations outside Arkansas. Because of her, black women became role models for the white women who organized the women’s movement. But she paid a high price. She was accused of using innocent children to advance her own agenda. She was opposed not only by whites but by black men who resented her usurpation of their power. By 1959, the newspaper for the black community that she had published with her husband, the paper that had given her a voice, was bankrupt, having lost advertising revenue because of its coverage of the crisis. Bates and her husband divorced, though they eventually remarried.
Daisy Bates was beautiful, glamorous, and articulate. She was outspoken. She didn’t ask; she told. She refused to stay “in her place.” “She took the lead when women were supposed to follow,” said La Cruise. But the filmmaker can’t be accused of producing a hagiography. She shows that Bates was also egotistical, vain, and decidedly not a saint: She dated her future husband for years while he was still married to someone else. Her detractors claimed that her accomplishments were driven at least in part by her desire for self-aggrandizement.
Men headed all the major civil rights organizations in 1963, and the other women of the civil rights movement were their assistants. Bates, however, refused to take second place. She wanted to lead. The Little Rock NAACP leadership denied her entry to the top ranks, so Bates did an end run around them and was elected president of the state organization. After the 1963 March on Washington, the men, but not the women, were invited to the White House to discuss ways to pass the Civil Rights Act when the speeches were over. No one thought to include the women who spoke at the March—Rosa Parks and Josephine Baker as well as Daisy Bates.
At the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the desegregation crisis in Little Rock, president Clinton recognized Daisy Bates. The president disclosed that “it was Little Rock that made racial equality a driving obsession in my life.” Two years later, in 1999, Bates died destitute. She became both the first woman and the first African-American to lie in state in the Arkansas capitol. Thousands of daisies were laid by her casket.
The film tells Bates’s story most effectively through photographs of Bates and her world: Bates and the Little Rock Nine, the angry faces of the violent mob outside Central High—pictures of a moment and a woman that are fading from the collective memory. Angela Basset speaks for Bates, animating many of the photos taken over time and voicing the activist’s inner thoughts, presumably taken from Bates’s memoir. The other narrators are the people who knew Bates, including some of the Little Rock Nine, and experts in the history of the fight for civil rights who offer their insights.
Director La Cruise dedicated Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock to the memory of all the unsung heroines of the civil rights movement.
Watch Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock – Available through March on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.